The Flow Genome Project researches Flow, which Steven Kotler describes as when performance sharply increases. Google [How to open up the next level of human performance], [How To Get Into The Flow State], and [The Science of Maximizing Human Potential]. Anyone familiar with the Zen(1) point of view will recognize Flow right off. Steven rephrases this in a religiously neutral way. Such rephrasing of core truths outside the religion box helps reconsider them in a fresh new way. Even so, leaving out ancestral connections has its downside. Certainly, the benefit of pursuing total religious neutrality by ignoring ancient teachings on this subject is limiting.
There is more than meets the eye
Consider this modern “Superman” phenomenon from a symptom’s point of view. What is causing this historically sudden increase in athletic performance cited as examples of Flow? I mean, we are the same animal we were tens of thousands of years ago. Yet, all of a sudden athletes are breaking record after record? Something appears lopsided about this. It feels more like a rapid descent into becoming an even more specialized species of cultural idiot savants. (See Why Do Idiot Savants Run Things?, p.79.)
The dawning of the electric age propelled exponential increases in science and technology, especially in the developed world. This led to a significant increase in human comfort and security, which removed many facets of Mother Nature’s “push back” on rash actions. As chapter 16 cautions, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Let’s be honest. Every living organism strives to maximize its survival advantage. That includes us, and we’ve certainly done just that over many millenniums. We are at the top of the food chain. This blind push on the part of each species to maximize its advantages relies on natural “push back” (i.e., nature’s discipline) in the wild to maintain balance. Interestingly, humanity appears to be the only species that manages to sidestep much of nature’s uncomfortable yet vital counterbalancing discipline.
Our mistake is ignoring the likely negative consequences of our actions. We not only ignore them, we vigorously put our head in the sand to avoid facing them. Admittedly, there is nothing new in saying that. What is new is the extent to which we’ve accelerated this rash rush forward. I assume humanity will be facing a slew of unintended and unforeseen consequences as long as we exist as a species. This tells me that pushing athletic limits is not the wondrous achievement it appears, but rather a symptom of how quickly—exponentially even—we are managing to thwart nature’s “push back”—nature’s discipline. As chapter 14 advises… Hold the ancient way in order to manage today. The ability to know the ancient beginning; this is called the way’s discipline.
When optimal is not optimal
Buddha’s eight truths address an optimal state of consciousness similar to The Flow State initiative. However, these truths apply to the whole of life, not to a narrow set of particular activities. The Flow State appeals to the narrow ambitious side of human nature seeking any advantage—progress—on a path toward increasing specialization. The price we pay is a loss of living a well-rounded life. Of course, we left that behind when we traded hunter gathering for agriculture. Will we ever feel we’ve achieved enough progress?
Balance is the ingredient missing from this quest to maximize human performance. Too much attention is just as lopsided as too little attention. Buddha’s Right Action doesn’t mean having an intensely narrow life focus. That borders on obsession. Speaking of obsession, dwelling on performance issues and on our judgments and beliefs is our real problem—our disease. Animals focus intensely when conditions necessitate, otherwise their attention wanders, allowing predators to take a bite. In short, perfection in anything is not balance. A blend of the perfect and the flawed is ‘Taoist perfection’. Our emotions have great difficulty appreciating this balanced wholeness. Emotion—fear and need—always clamor for more advantage.
“Entering the way seems like moving backwards”
A balance of the perfect and faulty is the constant perfection. As this paraphrasing of chapter 1 hints, The [perfect] possible to think, runs counter to the constant [perfect]. Balance is the name of the game. On the other hand, instinct always drives living things to seek more. In the wild, nature limits that drive and maintains balance. Without such limits, unhealthy consequences result. Humanity’s dilemma is that we are too capable and clever for our own good. The Science of Maximizing Human Potential only promises more capability without balance.
We can’t maintain constant 100 % focus biologically. We can only do this for short periods. Doing otherwise would be unnatural, yet we always end up expecting more of life… that is our nature. To put it another way, a starving man doesn’t seek perfection. He only seeks food. When he finds food, he seeks to enhance it—more and more or better and better. When does it stop? Never! The instinct to want more always drives us for more regardless of how much we have, whether that is food, fame, fortune, or mental focus. Progress, for us as a species, actually lies in moving backwards rather than pushing onward. Granted we will always have the urge to expect more and move forward, but at least we can know (Right Comprehension) that the drive for more and more in a “superior” species as ourselves is normally not in our best interest. Thus, we say…
The bright way seems hazy and hidden.
Entering the way seems like moving backwards.
The smooth way seems knotty.
Superior virtue seems like a valley.
Great purity seems disgraceful.
Vast virtue seems insufficient.
Established virtue seems stolen.
Truthful promises seem capricious…
Line 6 of chapter 16 speaks to our tendency to get ahead of ourselves, and the rest of the chapter points out an alternative.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
On a more personal note
We certainly do live in interesting times! (See And Then There Was Fire, 296.) I see numerous tangible issues connected to this “Flow” issue, but I fear addressing them would come off as deriding people in their pursuit of excellence. The fact is, we’re all victims of circumstance and inherent instinct. Our innate need to control life makes it virtually impossible for us to see problems, yet neither blame something or someone, nor rush forward with an ideal solution. Our need to control life leads us to believe we can control it, which ironically “proves” to us that we actually have free will.
I am only able to see the underlying causes for some of the problems we encounter in life. I have no solution, nor do I feel there is a solution other than what I hint at in And Then There Was Fire (p.296). Problems are part of life, part of evolution. I assume that I often sound as if I blame civilization. Certainly, I point to civilization as not being the great enterprise we believe it is. It is simply a byproduct of our quest for increasing comfort and security, which in turn arises from primal need and fear. In the end, nature is the only thing I can blame. So yes, I really blame nature, but not in a regretful pejorative way. Nature is the great experimenter and who doesn’t love an experiment… even if we are the subjects of the experiment.
(1) When Buddha’s teachings arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) it encountered the worldview described in the Tao Te Ching which was in circulation at that time. This resulted in an offspring, Zen (Chinese: 禪; Chán).